Archive | November, 2013

Law and Order

26 Nov

Discipline is everything in the journalism game.  If I find that our Copy Editor hasn’t neatly cropped the borders on an article, I’m angry.  If one of the Staff Writers doesn’t use the appropriate accolade to describe Gareth Barry, he or she will be shown the door.

This hard-line in achieving obedience stems from an exemplary upbringing.  Discipline was foremost in the Too Good household.  Get caught pinching the chocolate buttons off the sponge cake and there was a stern talking to on the cards.  A second act of buttons-based larceny would see Ma Too Good roll up her sleeve and leave no stone unturned on the seat of your Diadora-sponsored tracksuit bottoms.  To this day, my flanks still instinctively clench when I notice a topping has been removed from a home-made cake.

Discipline is needed now more than ever.  The world has become a lawless place.  We live in a society where you can pistol-whip prostitutes in computer games and David Dimbleby has a tattoo.  Gentler times these are not.

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Football, as ever in its role as mirror to society, reflects these changes in societal norms.  The game has become more cynical.  There was a Rubicon moment in the 2002 World Cup when, for the first time ever, England tried to wind down the clock by keeping the ball in the corner.  It was during the group match against Argentina.  As odd as it may sound, we’d never done such a thing up until then.  “Win at all costs” has always been the mentality for the professional game but, these days, teams really are examining every last nook and cranny for an advantage.

Keeping the ball in the corner is, at least, within the laws of the game (if not exactly bursting with Corinthian spirit).  It is the cynicism that has taken root regarding fully blown transgressions of the rules where football has truly lost its discipline…

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In the modern game, a curious abrogation of moral responsibility takes place when we see an opposing player go on the attack.  Sensing a hint danger, one of our own team’s players gently bundles the attacking player to the ground.  Not with any great force.  Indeed, with as little force as was necessary to complete the task.  Certainly not with any great aggression – it is perfectly possible that the fouled player will be picked up and dusted down for his troubles. 

A foul is given.  We, the viewing public, turn to a friend and, nodding sagely, declare that it was a “clever foul”.  Continuing the ethical vacuum, said friend looks back in our direction and, with very considerable solemnity, agrees that, yes, it was indeed a “very clever foul”.  To bolster their opinion, they too nod sagely.  We nod sagely a bit more in return and then, after a while, the nodding subsides and normal life resumes.

The foul was “clever” because, even if it wasn’t committed in the exigencies of great danger, the attacking team has lost momentum.  The co-commentator may even commend a team for doing a good job of “breaking up the play”.  It’s a Macabrian world out there and we’ve all collaborated. 

Such profound erudition in praising the “clever foul” overlooks one, rather important, thing.  It was a foul.  The clue was in the name.  It shouldn’t have happened.  It was naughty.  We shouldn’t be praising the antagonist’s behaviour.  We should be wagging a stern finger and telling his mother.

How did we allow the phrase “a clever foul” to pass so acceptingly into the footballing lexicon?  The answer is because we’re all complicit.  50% of the time that a clever foul is committed, it is to our own team’s advantage[1].  Do this enough over 90 minutes and it might help us get a result in a tight game; and that’s what makes it ok.  As Oliver Cromwell once put it, we’ve bartered our conscience for the bribe of all three points at Goodison Park.

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Well I’m not having it anymore.  A foul is only clever if the laws of the game allow it to be.  So let’s make “clever” fouls become just another stupid foul.  Mirthy transvestite, Russell Brand, wants a political revolution.  Good for him.  I want a footballing one.

Former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, once had the idea that if you committed three acts of criminality, it was fair to assume that you’d gotten a taste for felonious behavior and the best place for you was probably on the inside of a prison.  Journalists bestowed this policy with the moniker “Three Strikes and You’re Out”.  I like the sound of this Straw fella.  Straw would never have allowed a “clever crime”.  If you are able to reflect on a misdemeanor in the cold light of day and still think it was “worth” committing, the punishment wasn’t sufficient.

Football should follow suit.  If you commit three fouls in a game, you should be asked to leave the pitch.  Simple as that.

If you can’t go 90 minutes without unintentionally clattering people three times, you’re not in control of your limbs.  Even Andy Carroll, who at times resembles an inebriated Daddy Long Legs at the back end of a long summer, even he can refrain from unintentionally fouling people three times in a match.

There is almost always at least some intent when a foul is committed.  For all the “what, me, guvnor?” remonstrations after the event, players know what they are doing.  Like bankers, toddlers and the writers of South Park, they’re just seeing what they can get away with.  They’re using up the referee’s patience in a fuel-efficient manner.

Well no more.  Three offences in one game and you get first dibs on the shower gel.  Yellow and red cards remain in force just as before, so a nefarious player’s exit can still be expedited if necessary. 

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I know this all sounds a bit radical but try to approach the problem from afresh.  Fouling is cheating.  A boxing referee wouldn’t let one pugilist repeatedly punch the other bloke in the knackers.  If you land two low-blows, you have a point deducted.  Swing a third haymaker in the direction of your opponent’s tackle and you’ll get disqualified.  No arguments.  It’s against the rules and it gives you an unfair advantage.  Why should football permit circumstances where it is demonstrably the better option to foul rather than to play fair? 

You may love or loathe Cristiano Ronaldo, but he’s one of the most skilful players on earth and, for the sins of being bloody amazing, gets repeatedly kicked.  Weirdly, this is tolerated.  Ronnie sits there on the floor seven or eight times a game, bruised from thigh to toe, pleading with us to take action against his miscreants.  And we do nothing.  We walk on by like he’s asking us for spare change for a cup of tea. 

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Smoking would undoubtedly be outlawed if it was invented today.  Similarly, if we were to invent football again from scratch, I don’t think we would allow Ronaldo to be tripped and kicked quite so many times.  Sometimes it’s only the historical legacy which stops us from progressing.  If the rules of football were drawn up tomorrow, would we really create a landscape where it was possible to constantly foul the most skilful players on the opposition team?  I can’t remember the last time Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi went an entire game without being fouled.  Tellingly, I very much doubt they can either.  Why are we allowing this? 

Rules are only strong enough if they stop people committing the crime.  If you could murder someone and get away with a £50 fine and a few hours’ community service, people would be firing up their chainsaws at the drop of a hat.  The punishment isn’t sufficient.  It’s only the threat of 25 long years in the slammer which keeps our murderous lust at bay.  A deterrent has to be worthy of the name.  Believe me when I say I had a long, hard think about making it just Two Strikes and You’re Off.  Then we’d see a clean game of football.

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I’m a traditionalist.  I have no desire to see goal-line technology implemented and I wept openly during the dark days of golden and silver goals.  I wouldn’t recommend any rule change (and certainly not one as fundamental as this) without the greatest of caution.  But sometimes developments precipitate the need for change.

People have worked out how to cheat effectively.  The game has been enveloped by a collective awareness that it is better to foul on occasions than to play within the rules.  A calculated evil has taken hold where the spirit of fair play used to reside.  And we’ve accepted it without a whimper.

I’m convinced that the implementation of a “Three Strikes” rule would result in more enjoyable football matches; for both participant and spectator.  Games would have a much greater flow.  We would see more of what we’re meant to see in a game.  Football.  Artistry at both ends of the pitch.  Great attacking football countered by skillful and crisp dispossessions.

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Do you recall what made you fall in love with playing football?  Was it flying down the wing on the school field, sparks crackling from the man-made fibre of your Reebok two-piece?  Or was it craftily legging someone up who was attempting a dribble?  Would you have developed the same affection for the game if, every time you beat a man, the next player grabbed just enough of your shirt to hold you back?

All that it takes for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing.  Pernicious fouling makes football less enjoyable than it otherwise would be.  We should do more to combat it. 

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Obviously we’d need to replace Howie Webb with someone a little stricter.

Obviously we would need to replace Howie Webb with someone a little stricter.


[1] More, if you’re a Chelsea fan.

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An Ode to the Toe-Poke

15 Nov

As the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, will testify, toes can get you into all sorts of trouble.  Put them in the wrong place and the whole world wants to know about it.  However, one toe-based activity has the ability to stigmatise like no other.  A reputation-tarnisher on a par with facial tattoos and fancying your sister.  This heinous activity, dear reader, is toe-poking.

Ah, the toe-poke.  Not since Jaws reared his pointy head above the shallow New England waters has such a beautiful creature been so cruelly misunderstood.  Allowing for community variation, you may identify this contemptible being as the toe punt, the toe bang or even the toe bung.  But you all know what I mean.  Those nasty little prods with the toe.  You may even have abused a football yourself in such an errant manner.  Perhaps during a misspent youth; somewhere in between stealing Lego bricks from playschool and that first cigarette.  Wash yourself all you like, my child – the dirt won’t come off.

Some people argue that toe-poking is genetic.  Natural, even.  And that we ought not to pass judgment.  “Nonsense” screams the moral majority.  These deviant souls must be cured.  “Kick with your laces, boy!”  Self-help groups have even been set up in order to rid you or, god forbid, a loved one of this terrible affliction.

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A boy at our school suffered badly from this ‘disease’.  Jamie Palmer, or “Podger”, as he was affectionately known, was a toe-poker of the highest order.  He’d lurk near the opposition goal just waiting to stick the tip of a Clarke’s size 3 on the end of something[1].  Reviled by juniors and infants alike, Podger was shunned for his ball-striking heresy.  It was the playground equivalent of voting BNP.

Some people say that taking heroin is the greatest feeling of warmth and security that you could ever know.  A practice that, while horrifying and ultimately life-threatening, envelops you in such joy that, deep down, you know you’ll never be able to let go of the needle.  I imagine Podger experienced a similar sensation when putting toe on leather.  Despite forming a one-man underclass throughout his days at Brooklands County Primary School, Podger just couldn’t stop.  Toe poking was in his blood.  This was his way of life.  He hadn’t chosen it.  The life had chosen him.

I couldn’t tell you where Podger is now but I can only assume that he is, at best, a fringe member of society.  A social leper.  An outcast who could not, and would not, subscribe to social norms.

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Call him a progressive, but Old Man Too Good never forced me down this narrow-minded path of thinking.  He didn’t see toe-poking as the act of a cloven-hoofed Beelzebub.  Indeed, Father and I would nod approvingly at such egregious use of the toe (only ever in furtive tones, you understand) when it displayed itself on The Big Match Live.

Like ladyboys and cloud computing, we knew that toe-poking would never gain the public’s full acceptance or understanding.  But there was something poetic in witnessing its implementation.  On Sunday afternoons we would watch John Barnes, using the skill of a painter and the strength of a rhino, burst through massed ranks of defence in a majestic flurry.  Barnes would beat one man, then another.  Some days even a third.  Thenceforward, the wizard of the Liverpool wing would roll the ball sideways to his strike partner, Ian Rush, who would toe-poke it into the net from seven yards.

A shy smile would break out on Barnesy’s face as he casually jogged back to the halfway line, pleased at a job well done.  Rush, on the other hand, would sprint away in jubilant ecstasy; punching the sky as though one of his blog articles had just gotten a hundred readers for the very first time.  He would hare towards the Anfield faithful who, in turn, roared with delight – their master finisher had done it again!

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For those of you I might be able to persuade on the issue, Ian Rush provided us with 382 bloody good reasons why the toe-poke is viable.  It’s a bona fide option, especially in the penalty area.  A toe-poke requires almost no back-lift and it’s easy to change the direction of the strike.  Ask any goalkeeper what they fear most and nine times out of ten they will tell you it’s a poke from short range.  Anticipation is everything for those crazy custodians and you just can’t read a toe-end.  It’s the most disguised shot in the book.  The scoundrel of the vineyard.

There’s an old joke that goes something along the lines of the following:

“Supporting Manchester United is like voting Conservative and masturbating.  Everyone does it but no-one will admit to it.” 

Toe-poking is the same.  If you’re at the back end of long hour of 5-a-side after a night out on the tiles, you’ve reached for the toe-poke and don’t pretend you haven’t.  You want your toe on that ball.  You need your toe on that ball.  You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth.

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Finding a decent top flight toe-poker is as rare as hen’s teeth these days.  The golden age has passed.  It didn’t stop at Ian Rush and Gary Linker.  There were a few more toe-pokers hewn from the same sneaky timber.  Robbie Fowler, Kevin Phillips, Michael Owen. Franny Jeffers for all of a season and a half.  But eventually they all ebbed away in favour of the Rooneys and the van Persies.  Players too headstrong and proud not to put at least some kind of spin on the ball.  Nowadays it’s all insteps and the outside of the boot.  The game belongs to the show ponies.  Players who have too much in the way of swagger and commercial endorsements to stick a cheap toe in where it matters.

There was a time when Gary Lineker used to wear out the front end of his boots. Now all he exhausts is our patience.  Sir Gary was fondly remembered when he let his toes do the talking.  Switching to a more traditional form of oratory on Match of the Day has been his downfall.  Maybe part of the sadness in Gary’s Saturday night eyes is that he doesn’t see the next Gary Lineker out there on the extended highlights.  The position he knew and mastered doesn’t exist anymore.  He’s one of the last great calligraphers staring despondently at a myriad of font options on Microsoft Word.

Every now and then, though, the modern game forgets itself.  Once in a while, usually on the Monday night game, you see a crafty little toe-poke.  A mid-level striker goes rogue and nudges a ball goal-wards with the forbidden article.  He’ll probably get dropped for the next game.  Certainly, Nike will have torn up his boot contract before the final whistle is even blown.  But somewhere out there, deep beneath the orange tan and the self-satisfied expression, Gary Winston Lineker quietly smiles to himself.  There’s still place in the game for a little Old World charm.

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Not for the purist.

Not for the purist.


[1] The Mighty Podger was also an avowed goal-hanger, but I digress…

Moyeswatch

6 Nov

Welcome to Moyeswatch.  Not quite as glamorous as Baywatch, but we’re certainly seeing more boobs at Old Trafford than we’re used to.

The similarities between this year’s Manchester United and Baywatch are quite apparent.  Unconvincing performances in red attire.  Weak narratives in central areas.  Naive decision-making that necessitates last minute rescues from perilous situations.  There’s even a busty character called Anderson. It’s a wonder David Hasslehof hasn’t been sighted at the Theatre of Dreams.

Where possible, Too Good always likes to bulwark opinion with statistics.  So we’ve dusted off Microsoft Excel and compiled a graph.  The aim of the graph is to give an idea of how well Manchester United performed under Alex Ferguson:

United during Fergie's reign

United during Fergie’s reign

As you can see, the science shows just how consistently impressive United were under their former helmsman.  But what’s happened since Moyesy took over? What’s that done to the graph?  Well, let’s have a look…

Moyes-watch

United under David Moyes

Statistics can be used to prove and disprove all manner of things, but I think careful analysis of the second graph tells its own interesting story. “Vulnerable”.  These are not the words of an amateur pen waggler such as myself.  Far from it.  These are the proclamations of Mark Hughes.  A man so adept at football management that he was, by his own admission, too good to manage Fulham.

There’s a certain irony in Hughes’s caustic words having probably been learnt from the man Moyes is trying to replace.  The remarks confirm one thing for sure – it’s not business as usual this year at Old Trafford.  So much so that Match of the Day recently asked their interactive audience the question “will Man U finish in the top 4?”  One can only imagine the length of boycott that Ferguson would have imposed if such a question were asked of one of his teams.

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The signs were there on the opening day.  As odd as it sounds, the 4-1 score line didn’t tell the story of a Swansea team who comprehensively outplayed United for the first 45 minutes.  It was only the singular brilliance of Robin van Persie that turned the tide in United’s direction.  Since then, areas traditionally of strength for United have repeatedly had their soft underbelly exposed.  Watching Alvaro Negredo treat Rio Ferdinand like a rag doll in the Manchester derby suggests that, at 35, the bell might be tolling for the Master of Merk.  Vidic, too, has looked flaky; finding himself at fault for a number of goals this season.  Most notably, the Serb provided an expertly placed assist for Craig Gardner to score in the Sunderland game.

Moyes’ tactics haven’t helped matters.  If there’s one thing the new man might want to prioritise on his learning curve, it’s that you don’t substitute Wayne Rooney and bring on Chris Smalling in order to close out a 1-0 win at Old Trafford against a recently promoted side.  Shutting up shop against Southampton in front of 75,000 fans?  You’re Manchester United and you’re at home, for Christ’s sake.  It’s embarrassing.  The change smacked of fear, disorganised the unit and invited pressure on.  Southampton duly equalised.

After the 2-1 defeat to West Brom at Old Trafford, Moyes observed that “We didn’t defend well today at all.  But, in saying that, we didn’t attack well either.”  This is a bit of a problem for a team not exactly known for its midfield.  And it is the midfield that, incredibly, Moyes has contrived to weaken.  A £27.5 million acquisition ought to have shored up the deficiencies in the centre of the park.  This hasn’t exactly proved to be the case.

The centre of the Manchester United midfield has been something of a metaphorical black hole for years.  However, the black hole has now actually taken residence in corporeal form, in the shape of Marouane Fellaini’s oversized barnet.  A large black dot drifts aimlessly around the pitch where Paul Scholes used to be. 

The gravitational element of such an interstellar abyss is also present.  Fellaini’s first touch represents the event horizon, beyond which the football is sucked in and unable to escape until all trace of momentum has been lost.  You have to hand it to Moyes for pulling off such a poignant meta-physical analogy.  Rather than simply solve the issue, he has gone out and bought a player that manifests the physical embodiment of United’s problem.  £27 million is probably cheap for such a thought-provoking piece of modern art.

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Ferguson was recently quoted as saying it would be “incredible” if Moyes wins anything this season.  While there’s two ways to understand Fergie’s comment, one presumes that the festive book-peddler’s comments are an attempt to take the pressure off the new boy, rather than simply taking the piss. 

Either way, I disagree.  With the additional sparkle of Adnan Januzaj, he’s got pretty much the exact same squad that scorched the Old Trafford turf last season.  A team that, lest we forget, won the league by eleven points.  Surely, if anything, this is his easiest year?  A free swing with Fergie’s winning bat before he has to construct a team of his own.

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The conspiracy theorists would be forgiven for wondering if Moyes was deliberately framed as a post-Ferguson fall guy.  The tethered goat to be gobbled up by the Tyrannosaurus Rex of expectation.  But this isn’t the case according to the diktat coming out of Old Trafford.  Moyes is here for the long-term.  Six years at the minimum, so buckle up.

Ed Woodward and the Glazer family may yet find themselves with an interesting dilemma to mull over.  What happens if United miss out on the Champions League, this year or next?  Having made bold statements about longevity and continuity, should they stick with Moyes, however bad its gets?  Or should they swallow their pride and look for another “long-term” solution?  

My advice is to rip the band-aid.  I have no reason to be knee-jerk about things – Moyes can spend the next decade ploughing United into mediocrity for all I care.  And I’m all for managerial stability, but not when the wrong man was picked from the off.  Moyes isn’t the man to continue the legacy.  A quarter of the season has now gone – could you imagine United lying in 8th position if Mourinho had taken charge?  It would never happen.  Not in a month of Super Sundays.

It’s going to end badly for Moyes.  Maybe not terribly.  But not very well either.  He just isn’t the best man for the job.  Rip the band-aid, gents.  Rip it off.

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